The buildup to the World Cup semifinal between Croatia and England had been one-sided for the most part.
Many were rooting for the Three Lions to get to the final, after more than half a century of hurt, in the hopes of football will be finally coming home.
The English started brightly with an early surprise lead courtesy of a brilliantly taken free-kick by winger Kieran Trippier in the fifth minute.
But it wasn’t meant to be as ‘dark horses’ Croatia, The Vatreni, spoiled such hopes with Ivan Perisic notching the equaliser and Mario Mandzukic converting for the jugular in extra time.
In the end, it was the Balkans who proceed to the final to face France for the biggest and most coveted prize in international football.
All these years, Croatia, always come into such football tournaments with the international media treating them with a ‘hushed’ fear, but not really considering them as legitimate contenders who could win it all.
But now that they reached the final by showing more than enough resilience to enhance the undeniable talent this squad has been gifted with, maybe it’s time to bestow upon them the respect that they deserve and to consider them as a legitimate footballing super power.
1996: A promising debut
The country’s first participation in a major footballing tournament after declaring independence from Yugoslavia, Croatia showed immediate promise by reaching the quarter-finals of Euro ’96 in England.
After finishing second in their group, they proceeded to the quarter-finals bowing to Germany by two goals to one.
Such performance set the tone en-route to their gradual rise to prominence in the sport.
1998: A surprising pinnacle and the first “Golden Generation”
France ’98 World Cup was a surprising campaign for Vatreni. Being debutants bearing the Croatian flag (Croatia was part of Yugoslavia in prior competitions), many did not expect them to go far, but they did.
🇭🇷 Croatian Football Federation invites the entire 1998 @FIFAWorldCup bronze-winning generation to the #WorldCupFinal in Moscow!
ℹ https://t.co/v3CsxoKOQ2#BeProud #Croatia #FlamingPride #Family #WorldCup #Vatreni🔥 pic.twitter.com/55cvUmeEQj
— HNS | CFF (@HNS_CFF) July 12, 2018
Led by striker Davor Suker, Croatia went all the way to the semifinal only to come short by losing to hosts and eventual champions, France.
Croatia’s achievement became the toast of the tournament that time and they definitely made waves in the world of football as underdogs.
But were they really underdogs? The word seemed an understatement.
European Dark Horses
After that watershed performance in the 1998 World Cup, Croatia became legitimate challengers in international football, particularly in the European Championships.
In four subsequent tournaments that they qualified, the national team were able to survive the group stages in two out of four tries, reaching the quarter-finals in 2008 and the Round of 16 in 2016.
— DW Sports (@dw_sports) June 27, 2016
Such performances made them legitimate threats in international tournaments; a team never to be taken lightly.
Despite this reputation, however, they still weren’t considered as serious challengers for the trophy, particularly the World Cup.
World Cup under-performers
After the feat of 1998, Croatia followed up with a series of early exits in the following World Cup tournaments.
Inconsistent performances, coupled with unfavourable groupings, they failed to get out of the group stages in 2002, 2006 and 2014 (they didn’t qualify in 2010).
Despite having an array of talent in their lineups particularly in the 2014 edition, somehow the run in 1998 seems to be a long distant fluke for the country in the world’s biggest stage.
But it would turn out that the disappointing streak would finally end four years later.
2018: Uncharted territory – The World Cup Final for the Second Golden Generation
The 2018 Croatian World Cup Team arguably is the most complete and formidable assembled ever, without much hype from the international footballing media.
But looking at the squad, there really is something special about this bunch that is just waiting to happen.
— OptaJose (@OptaJose) July 12, 2018
With La Liga stars tandem of Real Madrid’s Luka Modric and Barcelona’s Ivan Rakitic lead the way as two gems lying at the heart of the formation, Croatia’s midfield has been immensely creative and solid.
Ivan Perisic has now scored two goals in each of the last three major tournaments for Croatia:
2014 World Cup
2016 European Championships
2018 World Cup
Changed the mood. pic.twitter.com/X4dvt91VEc
— Squawka Football (@Squawka) July 11, 2018
Boosted with wingers Inter Milan’s Ivan Perisic and Eintracht Frankfurt’s Ante Rebic (both seemingly underrated players with the abilities they possess) manning the flanks, the squad has been gifted with enough pace that can devastate any opposing defence when given an opporunity to pounce, complementing Juventus’ Mario Mandzukic as a striker who can deal a lethal blow at any given time in a match.
— B/R Football (@brfootball) July 12, 2018
Supported by a capable defensive line centred around Liverpool’s Dejan Lovren and Besiktas’ Domagoj Vida, with AS Monaco’s Danijel Subasic as the sentry between the posts, the Zlatko Dalic-managed Vatreni are given sufficient degree of stability and reliability at the back.
2 – Dejan Lovren is set to become only the second player to play in the Champions League final for an English club, and the World Cup final in the same year (after Thierry Henry in 2006). Defence. #CRO #WorldCup pic.twitter.com/669KQq47se
— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) July 12, 2018
Croatia’s first notable achievement in their 2018 World Cup campaign has been topping Group D with a perfect record in the initial phase which was considered as one of the tougher groups in the tournament highlighted by a 3-0 win against a Lionel Messi captained Argentina squad.
After that stellar showing in the group phase, the squad has been faced with much sterner tests in the knockout stages pushing them to the limits in the Round of 16 and the quarterfinals by squeezing through both via penalty shootouts.
Croatia have reached their first ever World Cup final after becoming the first side in the tournament’s history to qualify from three successive games of extra-time.
Never gave up. pic.twitter.com/C6QVs91VuX
— Squawka Football (@Squawka) July 11, 2018
Both instances though proved to show Croatia’s mettle and character as they were able to reach the semifinals to match their best run in the tournament as they faced England who were also on a (maybe an even bigger) chase to their own destiny.
What a day for Croatia 🇭🇷 pic.twitter.com/ppnNp1vaAk
— FOX Soccer (@FOXSoccer) July 12, 2018
The semifinals though would prove to be their highlight to date, not only in this particular World Cup but in their history as a footballing nation, as they were able to shatter their previous record in 1998 by going through to the World Cup Final for the first time in history and have a shot at winning the biggest trophy against an equally (maybe even fractionally more) talented French team, Les Bleus.
Now the biggest test awaits the Balkan nation, and with only one match left – one barrier more to shatter, Croatia are on the brink of earning their first star on their team crest.
Punching above their weight 💪🇭🇷 pic.twitter.com/xgmCb8zqqe
— B/R Football (@brfootball) July 11, 2018
Croatia were not “all guns blazing” in this World Cup tournament. They showed brilliance initially, showing their real capabilities against the big teams. But they were given their biggest tests against the ‘lesser’ nations which, in many cases, are the ones who give the sternest of challenges. They rose to those challenges and did barely enough to survive until the final stage.
It was an uneven path to the championship. They might even come in at a disadvantage with their more epic and grinding journey compared to their ultimate competitors, France, in Luzhniki Stadium. But they’ll have with them their mental resolve and belief already built strong enough to face this final adversity.
This small nation already achieved something great, but they are still on track to achieve something legendary.
The FINAL awaits.